Grant Seekers Toolkit Step 4: Approach a Foundation

There are four principal ways to begin a conversation with a foundation regarding the possibility of a grant.

You can:

  1. Call or email the foundation;
  2. Send a letter of inquiry (LOI);
  3. Have a meeting;
  4. Send a full proposal.

There is no one right approach. The option you choose will vary depending on the foundation’s guidelines and preferences, and on your personal style.

Phone Calls and Email

Your very first contact with a foundation may be to request application forms and proposal guidelines, if they are not available online. In this case, you will probably talk or exchange email with a receptionist.

Once you have reviewed the guidelines, identified the foundation as a good match, and defined a clear project to propose – then it is worth trying to open a conversation with a program officer or other foundation staff person (some foundations are run by very small staffs and have no program officers).

Before you call, it’s a good idea to write down a few talking points. These include:

  • A short intro of yourself and your station;
  • A one-sentence description of the project for which you’d like to request support;
  • The top 2-3 points you want to make about your project (e.g., it will significantly expand our capacity to bring diverse voices to the air).

You can also write down your questions in advance, including:

  • Any questions you have regarding the foundation’s guidelines or application procedure, including timeline for proposal review. Sometimes, for example, the foundation representative will tell you that the upcoming grant cycle is full and recommend that you wait to submit your proposal until the next cycle.
  • If you are calling to request a meeting, a short description of why you are doing so and a request for 20-30 minutes of time.
  • Whether there are particular questions or points that the foundation especially wants to see addressed in a proposal (for instance, some foundations are particularly interested in the impact of a project; others are especially focused on budget, etc.).

The foundation representative may very well ask you to submit a letter of inquiry as your first step in the proposal process. If you promise to supply an LOI or any other specific information or materials to the foundation, be sure to put the information on your calendar and submit the materials in a timely fashion.

Letter of Inquiry

Many foundations request a letter of inquiry as a first contact. Some foundations have specific format guidelines for these letters. In general, letters of inquiry should:

  • Be 2-3 pages in length
  • Briefly identify what your organization does
  • Provide a brief overview of the proposed project
  • Suggest why the project is needed and what its impact will be
  • Draw a connection between the project and the mission/interests of the foundation
  • State the ask amount
  • State the overall project budget
  • Indicate if other funders are already on board
  • Provide contact information for the appropriate staff person at your organization
  • Indicate when and how you plan to follow-up with the foundation
  • Usually, you do not send attachments with a letter of inquiry, unless specifically requested by the foundation.

When you call to follow up, you may find that the foundation representative has not read your letter of inquiry or has passed it along to another staff person. In the first case, you can briefly describe your project, ask any questions you may have, and invite the foundation staffer to ask questions of you. In the second case, you can gather information about who the new contact is and proceed to call him/her.

If the foundation representative has already read your letter, you can use the follow-up call as a way to supplement the information you have already provided (even though your goals may still be to find out if they would consider a proposal and/or to request a meeting). For example, you may want to use the call to:

  • Highlight what makes your project distinctive within your community;
  • Inform the funder of your strategy for supporting the project (you may be seeking to build a consortium of funders, for instance);
  • Offer a meeting with key program staff, if appropriate.

Your conversation will probably be brief. Be sure to note on your calendar any proposal deadlines or dates for sending requested information to the funder.

In-Person Meeting

Some grantseekers believe that you should always seek to have personal contact – even a meeting – prior to submitting a grant proposal. In their excellent book, Demystifying Grant Seeking, Larissa Golden Brown and Martin John Brown propose “what might be considered a radical approach: try to get a meeting only when you have a reason for one.” They outline a variety of good reasons to request meetings with foundations, including:

  • You need to establish your identity with a funder, perhaps because your organization is new in the community;
  • You have had a significant staff change and your new staff person (e.g., Board president, GM) wants an introduction to the funder;
  • You already have a relationship with the funder, but the staff person you work with has changed;
  • You want to propose a change in the nature or magnitude of your relationship with the funder (e.g., asking for a capital request).
  • The funder has had mixed or negative relationships with your organization in the past and you want to lay new ground;
  • You are asking for the funder’s advice (e.g., on a new initiative, on other potential funders, etc.).

Be aware that many foundations will not meet with a grant applicant either until a full proposal has been submitted or until after a grant has been awarded. Some foundations will never want to meet with you. Other foundations make a point of meeting with every grant finalist or grantee.

Full Proposal

It is best to have some kind of initial contact with a foundation before submitting a full proposal. The main reason for this is that the initial contact enables you to determine if the foundation is really a good match for your organization. Otherwise, you can waste a lot of time preparing a proposal that may get rejected out of hand. However, some foundations specifically request a full proposal rather than a letter of inquiry, meeting, or phone call. In these cases, you should honor their preference. (See Write the Proposal Narrative for more information on preparing the proposal narrative.)